Wednesday a group of 127 World War II and Korean War veterans made the successful round trip to and from Washington, D.C., with HonorAir Knoxville. This was the 15th time the organization has flown veterans to see the memorials that were built in their honor completely free of charge.
The day started a focus on the number 97 as the crowd at McGhee Tyson Airport serenaded Peter Gambino of Dandridge on his 97th birthday.
"It was very nice and really made me feel good," said Gambino. "I'm looking forward to the trip and am obviously getting a lot more attention with it being my birthday."
The short flight to Washington, D.C., may as well be a commute around the block compared to Gambino's travels during World War II.
"I was in the Army and got sent to New Guinea of all places. It was kind of a scary experience, but we got through it," said Gambino.
If the 15th trip for HonorAir Knoxville proved anything, it was no matter how many times you have done this type of trip there are always plenty of firsts. Foremost on Wednesday's trip was this marked the first flight during a government shutdown.
"We were mostly concerned about the unknowns and did a lot of planning to give extra time between stops at the different monuments. You didn't know how much time it would take to park and do other things compared to normal," said Eddie Mannis, chairman of HonorAir Knoxville. "We've moved a barricade or two just to get the buses in. The Lincoln Memorial was the only one that was really 'hard closed.' We didn't move it, but the barricade got moved there and people still visited."
Aside from a few barricaded bumps in the road, the most obvious impact of the shutdown was the lack of bathroom facilities at the World War II Memorial. With 127 veterans making the trip, HonorAir Knoxville made arrangements to have port-a-johns at the site.
"It has not really been much different than any of the other 14 flights. I think at the end of the day we've found the National Park Service is being pretty cooperative," said Mannis.
Veterans visiting the World War II Memorial found a warm welcome from Park Service employees.
As the service men and women approached the World War II Memorial, they were greeted warmly by Park Rangers who openly stated, "Welcome to your memorial." The National Park Service has found a new use of creative verbiage to ensure the memorial is open to veterans during the shutdown. A new sign openly states the monument is closed "except for 1st Amendment Activities."
Wednesday's trip was also a first for HonorAir Knoxville due to the death of long-time ambassador Sam Hardman. He died in August at the age of 95. The last few years he became an icon for the HonorAir flights and rallied veterans throughout East Tennessee to travel with the group to see the World War II Memorial.
"It is tough for me. Mr. Hardman was a great friend of mine," said Mannis. "When I got up this morning, I realized Mr. Hardman would not be on this flight. He would not be at the airport. He would not be there at the welcome home tonight. And he never missed a sendoff or a welcome home."
The group placed a wreath of flowers at the Tennessee column of the World War II Memorial in tribute to Hardman.
"He went with us on our very first flight in the spring of 2008 and was always there for us. We do this in his honor and I know this makes him very happy," said Mannis.
The veterans able to finally experience the memorial that Hardman was so passionate about received a variety of items money cannot buy. For Gambino, his birthday presents included the gift of respect from countless young people at the memorial who repeatedly shook his hand and said "thank you for your service."
"I've never seen any of them before in my life. It amazes me," said Gambino. "I don't deserve all that credit though."
Gambino said it was heart-warming to see the memorial that will show eternal gratitude for the service and sacrifice of what has been dubbed the "greatest generation."
"To think there are so many soldiers and navy men who died for our country. This will always be remembered by everybody with this type of memorial. Everybody is so in awe of this place. It's such an inspiring place. It is special because it means I'm part of it in a way," said Gambino.